Thursday, July 31, 2003


I realized this a little too late to do it for June, but since these posts are published in reverse chronological order, it makes more sense to put up a table of contents for a given month on the last day of that month instead of the first day of the next month. This way, the contents are the first thing you see when you log on to that month. Immediately below is the contents for July and below that I will repeat the contents for June (which was originally at 7/2).


7/26 -- Mel Gibson and the scholars; they are not all that different.

7/16 -- The Joy and Fear of Research; discrepancies between what the Gospels actually say and the traditional story; Schweitzer; Renan; Crossan; Delitzsch; Klassen; Klauck; Stendahl; Judas; Jesus and the Temple; Caiaphas and Annas.

7/9 -- Response to Telford Work; on building an understanding of the historical Jesus from the bottom up (his teachings and rabbinic lit.) rather than from the top down (Messianic and end-of-time issues); rabbinic lit. and the Temple.

7/5 -- Mel Gibson; his use of Aramaic is an admission that he will allow some historical sense into the picture; hence, he can be criticized if he fails to be even more historically accurate.

7/3 -- Jesus' Jewishness and the mystery of Christ; is there a conflict between the two?; Rosenstock-Huessy; Renan; Crossan; Angela McCourt; Garry Wills; Jesus and the Pharisees.

7/1 -- Rabbinic lit. and the Gospels; Matt 5:21-24 on murder and anger; new wine and old wineskins; the last, first; you have heard/but I say.


6/28 -- Fear of Jesus' Jewishness; brief reference to Pagels; girl on a train; on the names Jesus/Joshua and James/Jacob; K. Stendahl; Church history and Jews; the ancient Judaizers.

6/27 -- Rabbinic lit. and the Gospels; figs, spit, and strong wine; P. Culbertson; Crossan on virgin birth and wild dogs.

6/26 -- An encounter with E. Pagels; universal Jesus; rabbinic lit.; a brief look at Thomas 70.

6/25 -- My encounter with K. Paffenroth, concerning Judas.

6/24 -- Judas; W. Klassen; K. Paffenroth.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

(Reminder: Table of contents at 7/2; a discussion of the discrepancies between what the Gospels say and the traditional story at 7/16, just below this post.)


More and more signs are pointing in the direction that Mel Gibson's "The Passion" will be as antisemitically provocative as feared. (My original comments are at 7/5; scroll three posts down.) The most egregious detail to emerge so far is that he depicts the devil inciting the executioners of Jesus, resulting in a riot between Romans and Jews with Jesus getting crap from both sides. Apparently, this scene is in both the screenplay and a rough cut of the film.

The controversy may boil down to a couple of crucial scenes like this one where most of the antisemitism takes place, or it might lie in the overall tone of the film. The final version that is released could differ from what people have seen at this point, and if there are changes, it may be the present hoopla that brings them about.

Based on the screenplay that a group of scholars have seen, I agree with all of Paula Fredriksen's criticisms of the historical inaccuracies which she reports on in "The New Republic" (July 28). I completely support her efforts to expose this. But there is a teensy bit of hypocrisy in her or any scholar's complaints about this.

Gibson could defend himself by saying that he is only offering a poetic rendition or extrapolation of what is in the work of most scholars and churches. Everyone gives lip service to the idea that we should not blame Jews for Jesus' death, but then they turn around and blame Jews far more than they do Romans.

The official "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (1994) states, "The Sanhedrin [the Jewish high court], having declared Jesus deserving of death ... hands him over to the Romans ... The high priests also threatened Pilate politically so that he would condemn Jesus to death" (No. 596).

Scholars too accuse the Jewish leaders of manipulating a reluctant Pilate into executing Jesus (e.g., Bruce Chilton, "Rabbi Jesus", pp. 232-34). Many of them continue to blame an even wider range of Jews by claiming that a majority of the Jewish people were offended by Jesus (Chilton, pp. 250, 254).

Even as highy a pro-Jewish scholar as E.P. Sanders tells his readers that most Jews would have been offended by Jesus' action at the Temple ("Jesus and Judaism", p. 270). That some other Pharisees and rabbis took even more serious action and made more serious criticisms without sparking animosity from Jews is not something Sanders informs us of. These scholars evoke a climate -- a fantasy -- of Jewish resentment of Jesus that contributes to his downfall. (I review more of this in THE OFFENSIVE JESUS on my Web site.) Can you fault Gibson for his own exaggerations and fabrications when he has so much scholarly work to mislead him?

And what about Paula Fredriksen? She is not as heavy-handed as other scholars and she certainly never conveys the false idea that Jews were offended by anything Jesus said or did. Like most Jewish scholars, she knows that Jesus was not religiously persecuted by Jews. But she too blames Jewish leaders for having political motivations against Jesus, even though she seems to lay primary responsibility on Rome. In "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", she has the Jewish high priest Caiaphas alerting Pilate about Jesus (p. 254) and working closely with him to eliminate Jesus (p. 258).

My point is that there is no credible evidence for any of this. Fredriksen employs innuendo against the priests more than factual analysis. On this specific issue, her scholarship is as faulty as Mel Gibson's. I will grant that scholars are not as inflammatory as his film may turn out to be, but they are not blameless either. Scholars continue to provide irrational grist for the mills of hotheads.

(Probably no Jewish scholar goes further than Hyam Maccoby who, almost every chance he gets in every book he writes, lambastes the priests as quislings. It is his favorite expression for them.)

I cannot emphasize enough how valuable are the efforts of Fredriksen and others to point out Gibson's distortions of the Gospel texts. But all scholars and religious leaders really do share a deep flaw with him. They have helped to keep alive the possibility of the more emotional elements that you get from someone like Gibson.

Ironically, while some of the currently known details of his film are a misrepresentation of the Gospels, they are not that out of line with what is in the work of the scholars and religious teachers who criticize him.

From my point of view, the funniest remark in Fredriksen's article comes about the midway point. After noting how difficult it is for Gibson or anyone to hear criticism, she comments on her group's efforts to bring certain things to his attention: "we also functioned with a naivete that is peculiar to educators: the belief that, once an error is made plain, a person will prefer the truth" (p. 27, cols. 1-2).

How are she and other scholars any better models for preferring the truth over error? I won't even discuss my own efforts to commuicate with her (before this controversy broke out). I will just mention two books that have made scholarly errors plain without any effect on the scholarly world.

Haim Cohn, an Israeli Supreme Court Justice in the 1960s and 1970s, published "The Trial and Death of Jesus" in Israel in 1968 and in America in 1971. While he didn't figure out the whole story (he left unresolved the stories of Barabbas and Judas), he did correctly explain the role of the priests who tried to save Jesus' life -- by a route independent of the one I used to come to the same conclusion. He performed an Einsteinian revolution in Gospel scholarship. Yet most scholars have ignored him and a few have disparaged him.

Then there is William Klassen's 1996 book "Judas" which I have mentioned so many times on this blogspot and on my Web site (see the 7/16 post, just below this entry, for my other references to him). Though he admits he does not fully understand what Judas did, he has firmly established that it could not have been an act of betrayal. Yet the significance of his work has also been ignored or downplayed by virtually everyone.

What Paul Fredriksen and all of us have difficulty seeing is that we all dwell in this blindness created by a very prejudiced worldview. Scholars no less than Gibson are encumbered by ancient tradition. Truth? The error of their ways? It doesn't interest them. Power means far more to scholars than truth or honest debate about the truth.

The truth about truth and justice is that, when you fight for these things, you fight alone.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

(Reminder: A table of contents at 7/2; also, comments on Mel Gibson at 7/5.)


(For books referred to here, see Bibliography on my Web site.)

I miss acting. I miss it a hell of a lot. For the camaraderie and sense of family, and for the joy of discovery -- the adventure of looking for truth and life in the details. It's a community effort. Actors, directors, writers, technicians. We're all on this quest together to inspire each other, bouncing off each other, excited about the prospects. We have this goal -- we are going to discover something and shed some light on the human dilemma; we are going to uncover layers under layers and bring them to life.

I once had an acting teacher, Jane Dentinger, who said that a good actor is a good detective. You are on a hunt for clues to character. Be specific. That's where the life is. In the details. Your antennae are up for those sparks that grab you and bring the character to life.

All art, I suppose, is like that. So is science and history. The imagination of artists and scientists is not to make fantastic stuff up, but to see reality, those aspects of reality that others have missed. A historian is a detective looking for the clues and the most rational pattern you can find in the clues. You are searching for the simplest and most human answers you can find. Elegantly simple. Those usually turn out to be the right answers.

Simple theories tend to make the most sense of the evidence and the most successful predictions about what other evidence you can find. The joy of seeing it all link up into one comprehensible story -- science is storytelling, as someone once wrote -- is indescribable.

And that is missing from Gospel scholarship, especially from those who call themselves historical critics. Instead of joy, you find this anxiety to keep the historical Jesus at bay. The field was invented to keep the historical Jesus hidden and make sure he is never discovered.

Throughout the 19th century and right into the 20th, which was opened up by Albert Schweitzer's "The Quest of the Historical Jesus", scholar after scholar insisted that Jesus was beyond all history, not subject to any historical context. That's anxiety, not joy. Schweitzer called Jesus' self-consciousness the great fact which could not be elucidated by anything else of his time ("Quest", p. 367). He was completely disparaging of Judaism and called rabbinic parables "stunted undergrowth" beside the great tree of Jesus (ibid., p. 287).

Occasionally, there might be a slight exception like Ernest Renan. But even those exceptions prove the rule. In 1863, Renan recognized how much Jesus' arguments resembled the style found in rabbinic literature ("Life", p. 89). He pointed to the Talmud as the key to understanding Jesus' development (ibid., p. 31). And what does he do with this key? He throws it away. He never uses it, not once, to make any discoveries or gain any insight. He just insists that Jesus' destiny was to end up "no longer a Jew" (ibid., p. 225). Man, oh man, if there isn't deep anxiety in that.

It hasn't changed to this day. I explain in some detail, at the end of SCHWEITZER AND RENAN on my Web site, that John Crossan's 1994 "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography" is essentially the same as Renan's book. Crossan wants to get Jesus as far from Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism as he can, and, in some of his books, he doesn't mind indulging in shocking language to do it.

Crossan will say that Jesus "forged a two-edged sword which strikes as lethally against his contemporary Judaism as it should have done against primitive Christianity" ("In Parables", p. 35). That he includes Christianity here does not lessen the sickening impact of his assertion: He has Jesus and Judaism in lethal antagonism. How is that an improvement over the antisemitic scholarship of the past?

Crossan will also put Jesus closer to Buddhism than to Hebrew (rabbinic?) wisdom: "[I]t must be emphasized that Jesus' use of proverbs and parables is far closer to that of Zen Buddhism than it is to conventional Hebrew wisdom" (ibid., p. 76). And Crossan has the nerve to call himself a historian? Schweitzer too, and many other scholars, have shown themselves more sympathetic to Buddhist parallels to Jesus than to rabbinic ones.

Several times in this book, "In Parables", Crossan brings up negative comparisons between Jesus and the rabbis (pp. 19, 20-21, 53, 66). Rabbinic literature contains more positive comparisons between Jesus and his fellow rabbis, but Crossan would never tell you or himself about them (for some of these parallels, see my posts for 6/27 and 7/1). His anxiety about Jesus' Jewishness is as deep as Renan's or Schweitzer's or any of the older scholars'.

The fact that Crossan can speak positively of Hebrew scripture doesn't alter the picture in the slightest. For 2,000 years, many Christians have been so fond of Hebrew scripture that they act as if they own it and will not allow Jews their own relationship to it. This is one thing that has begun to change for the better in recent years. As for Jesus, it must be remembered that Judaism had developed quite a bit by his day since the time of the Hebrew Bible. An entire oral culture had taken Hebrew scripture further and Jesus was a part of this. He is much closer to Pharisaic/rabbinic culture than he is to Hebrew scripture. As Bernard Lee (Catholic, I believe) has put it, Jesus' "freedom to reinterpret is a gift from the Pharisaic genius" ("Galilean", p. 145; cf. p. 127).

But Renan said that Jesus suffered more among Jews in Jerusalem than he did at Golgotha ("Life", p. 307). Franz Delitzsch, another 19th century scholar who, like Renan, could also be somewhat positive about Judaism, including defending the Talmud against antisemitic attacks, would say that he found comments on Jesus' Jewishness by the Jewish scholar Abraham Geiger more horrific ("ten times more horrific") than the crucifixion (see Heschel, Susannah, "Geiger", p. 196). Renan and Delitzsch were relative liberals of their time, proving that no matter how advanced scholarship gets, it never overcomes its fear of Jesus' Jewishness.

So what's the end result of all this fear and anxiety? Well, good scholarship is certainly not one result. The fear has been so strong that simply seeing the evidence in the Gospels has been a major problem. A traditional story arose which has Jesus at odds with other Jews -- surrounded by violent, lethal Jews and persecuted by them. The question is how much of this story is in the Gospels. Very little in fact. The Gospels have to be mangled to support this anti-Jewish story. The Gospels are not nearly as anti-Jewish as scholars still lead us to believe.

I will not discuss again Judas whom I have said enough about before (see posts for 6/24 and 6/25, and BLAMING JEWISH LEADERS on my Web site). Suffice it to say that the Gospels are still mistranslated to make them say that Judas betrayed Jesus. Judas may be demonized in Luke and John, but Mark certainly never brands Judas with wrong-doing, and even the later Gospel of John cannot bring itself to use the Greek word for betray to describe Judas' action.

Despite the fact that this has been pointed out at least since 1881 and despite William Klassen's great 1996 book, it has made virtually no impact on the scholarly world.

Hans-Josef Klauck, who is as concerned with the injustice of falsely accusing Judas as Klassen is, brilliantly says, "We do not need psychodynamics to understand Judas. But we need it to understand ourselves ..." (quoted by Klassen in his essay in "Authenticating the Activities of Jesus", edited by Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans, p. 408). To understand ourselves, I would say, and the mess we have made of reading the Gospels. It is not only Judas' story that we have wrecked.

Scholars also frequently tell us that what sealed Jesus' doom was the disturbance he created at the Temple. Not only does this not fit the historical context (there were Pharisees and rabbis who made far more serious criticisms of some Temple practices and they suffered no consequences), but the Gospels say no such thing.

Not only do the Gospels not say that Jesus got into trouble for this, not only do they provide information for how positive Jesus' attitude towards the Temple was (as E.P. Sanders fully admits ["Historical Figure", p. 256] and as a very conservative scholar like Robert Stein also admits ["Jesus the Messiah", p. 193]), but at the so-called Jewish trial of Jesus (it was really an informal meeting) and at the Roman trial, Jesus is never charged with this disturbance of the Temple merchants. It is never brought up as a factor against him.

How could this incident with the vendors and the moneychangers be such a serious crime and yet it is never mentioned at the "trial"? Were the Gospel writers the worst storytellers who ever lived? I don't think so. But no one ever looks for more sensible explanations.

(Sanders too betrays his anxiety about Jesus' Jewishness, though he is a far better scholar than most in his ability to at least spot and accurately report much of the evidence. He will leap from the positive Gospel information about Jesus and the Temple to an assertion that Jesus threatened the Temple ["Historical Figure", p. 258]. In his anxiety, Sanders must reimpose the traditional story of a Jesus hostile to Judaism -- against the plain evidence of the Gospels.)

The Gospels do not even say, as we are often told, that Jesus was "tried" (again, there was no trial) by Caiaphas, the high priest in power. Mark never names the high priest. Luke 3:2 mentions Caiaphas and Annas, but at the "trial" scene, he does not say which one. Matthew is the only one who says it was Caiaphas, while John names Annas. Annas was probably a retired high priest who had been in office from 6 C.E. to 15 C.E.

So the Gospels as a whole make it a 50-50 case between Caiaphas and Annas. But rare is the scholar who will point this out. And non-existent is the scholar who will stop and think about this. Could Jesus have been informally questioned by a retired high priest? Could this have any implication for how mild an affair this was? Possibly a very friendly affair from the Jewish point of view? Thinking is not permitted in this field anymore than looking. No joy in Mudville.

(All art and science is about looking, looking with fresh eyes. That's the joy. Said Goethe: Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but just looking is even more interesting. And Paul Cezanne: A single carrot freshly observed would set off a revolution. Exactly. For me, the carrot was Barabbas, but there are so many clues in the Gospels which should have caused scholars to stop -- stop repeating the traditional story -- and rethink the whole thing.)

But don't the Gospels say (e.g., Mark 14:1) that the priests plotted against Jesus? Yes, but what details does Mark supply to support this? None. The conservative scholar John Meier acknowledges this (MJ 1.181). "The priests plotted" is somebody's conclusion more than a fact. Or, to put it another way: While it is a fact of the Gospel texts, it is not necessarily a fact of history, as a little thinking about the Gospels will demonstrate.

Jesus may have been on trial before Pilate or some other Roman official for a couple of hours at best, but the priests have been on trial (more like a witch trial) for Jesus' murder for 2,000 years. Suppose a witness testified in court that Frankie and Johnnie plotted to kill Larry. The defense would object. The judge would sustain the objection and advise the witness to testify only to what he saw and heard, not to his conclusions about plotting. Conclusions are for the jury (or historian) to draw. Mark never tells us what anyone saw or heard that would lead to the conclusion of priests plotting, as Meier and others would admit.

The lack of evidence in the Gospels is as much a fact as the sentence reporting that the priests plotted to kill Jesus. Other than the bare statement about plotting, the evidence for this supposed fact is practically non-exsitent. Why does Mark tell a story with such sparse facts? What is the simplest answer? Does anyone want to think about this?

And "priests plotting" certainly does not fit the historical context from Josephus, the 1st century historian. He never reports priests conspiring like this and he never reports them cooperating with Rome to arrest and prosecute Jewish troublemakers. He even reports one case where they refuse to cooperate with the Romans, though they knew the consequences would be bad.

Unhappily, there is no joy of rediscovering the evidence in so-called historical scholarship on Jesus. It is all pure anxiety to make sure the traditional story is never lost. Or rather, to make sure that one aspect of the traditional story is never lost -- Jesus persecuted by Jewish enemies. Though the Gospel evidence does not squarely point in this direction of a persecuted Jesus, nobody wants to take a fresh look.

When you add it all up, all the clues (and there are even more I have not mentioned here) point solidly in one direction: Jewish leaders got together in an attempt to save Jesus from the hands of the Romans. But, of course, we have heard the story of Jewish leaders working against Jesus so often, it is hard to imagine that the Gospels might actually contain a different story -- that is, it is so hard to see, to see another reality.

If truth be told, when the history of all this is written up centuries hence, I think our ultimate fear will have turned out to be this: That the true story of Jesus in harmony with and helped by fellow Jews is as inspiring, if not more so, as the traditional story. It is the competing inspiration that scholars and religious leaders are afraid of. In the free marketplace of ideas, scholars agonize that honest examination of the original Gospels will captivate people more than their scholarly anxiety to keep the truth down and substitute a story of hatred, violence, cruelty, and betrayal.

What Krister Stendahl, a theologian at Harvard Divinity School, has said about academic writing on Paul is even more true of Gospel scholarship: "What has happened to Christianity is that instead of having free access to the original, we have lived in a sort of chain reaction ... moving away from the original. We must now take a fresh look at the original ... The original is there, and I have tried to point to it. The original is there, and to return to it is to be a true son or daughter of the Reformation" ("Paul Among Jews and Gentiles", p. 72).

With respect to the story of Jesus' death, we have strayed very far from the original Gospels.

Stendahl's book is that rare one which really is animated by the joy of discovering the evidence. Even though I disagree with some of this major conclusions about Paul, I have no hesitation in saying that this book is a genuine masterpiece. He really is in love with the text as historical document.

If there were a lot of scholars like him or Klassen, it might even make up for having left acting. As it is, I feel all alone and very frightened in a world that continues to advocate the most irrational scholarship about ancient Judaism, about the Gospels, and about Jesus' place in his home culture. Is anyone listening? Does anyone care? Hello? Anybody? Help.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

(Reminder: There's a table of contents at 7/2; also, my comments on Mel Gibson are on 7/5).

(For complete information on any authors and their works mentioned here in abbreviated form, see Bibliography on my Web site.)

I emailed Telford Work with a brief comment on his recent blog on N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg. Since I am a novice with computers and the Internet, I don't know how to do links, so I'll just type his site here:

See his 7/7 post for his response to my email.

I am more familiar with Borg than with Wright. Briefly, I said that their emphasis on Jesus as a Messiah or prophet of the kingdom of God is beginning at the wrong end. It's like coming upon some workers raising a spire into the air with a crane and saying they are going to construct a building from the top down. You'd think they had lost it. Best to begin with a foundation.

In Jesus' case, the foundation is all the teachings you find in rabbinic literature. I doubt he was born obsessed by end of time hopes. He would have grown up hearing songs, stories, jokes, riddles from his mother, father, village elders. Our best source for that is rabbinic literature. Far better than Qumran documents. Most of Jesus' teachings on humility, love, repentance, avoidance of power, etc. have nothing to do with eschatological beliefs. They are about the here and now.

Prof. Work says I have been unfair to Wright and also to scholars like E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredriksen. I assume he means to include Borg too.

Not only have I been fair, I have been extremely fair and accurate. To say they underutilize rabbinic lit. is an understatement. More typically, they don't use it at all. Someone like Borg will use the Greek word for "hypocrite" to help explain Jesus' teaching. He will not use rabbinic thoughts on hypocrisy, which is Jesus' world. (See Borg's essay in Shanks, "Search", p. 47.) Running to other cultures instead of Jesus' home culture to clarify his words is not good scholarship. Nobody would use Shakespeare instead of Apache culture to explain Geronimo. That is nonsense.

In Paula Fredriksen's two major books on Jesus, she never uses rabbinic lit. either. In the second book, she is very good on elucidating Jesus' relationship to Jewish rituals, but she avoids rabbinic lit. which could have been so helpful. (Her discussion may be informed by her knowledge of rabbinic lit., but she never brings it explicitly into play.)

I would never deny that Jesus was a prophet who spoke about the kingdom of God. That avenue can be fruitful (as I pointed out in my essay RABBI JOSHUA on my Web site). But I do say that this approach has been overdone to the utter neglect of rabbinic lit. The disparity between scholarly attention to eschatology and their use (really, nonuse) of rabbinic lit. is enormous. There is a tremendous imbalance in their work. That's a fact. And it will stand as a fact until someone comes up with facts to prove I am wrong.

Furthermore, I don't think scholarly work on Jesus' end of time beliefs is all that good (though it's not all bad either). They make mistakes precisely because they do not build upon a secure foundation. They leap to the top and attempt to construct from there down. In particular, they interpret everything about Jesus through the prism of a long-standing, prejudiced, and misconceived worldview: Jesus in hostile conflict with other Jews. That is so wrong. They even put hostility into his ideas about the kingdom of God. (Borg is hit and miss on this, but with regard to fellow Jews, he sees a lot of hostility in Jesus and he complains that E.P. Sanders' Jesus is too Jewish because Sanders does not put enough conflict between Jesus and other Jews -- see Borg, "Contemporary", pp. 20-21, 23.)

Some attention to rabbinic ideas about the world to come and the role of prophets would indicate Jesus' real context: Compassion, not anger or hostility. (I do this in some detail in my book.) Borg does see a lot of compassion in Jesus' teachings (I admire him for this), but he's not consistent.

Scholars do not draw their anti-Jewish worldview from the Gospels. Rather they assume this worldview and use it to do violence to the Gospel texts and distort what they say. If you have a solid grounding in rabbinic lit., you can see in the Gospels just how much Jesus was in harmony with, not opposition to, his fellow Jews.

There is a rabbinic saying: If a prophet gets angry, his prophecy departs from him. That is Jesus' world. Unless you understand this, it is so easy to misread his prophecies and his preaching about the kingdom of God. The Qumran documents, by contrast, are full of hatred and invective. They are not Jesus' world. (In fact, I think it is possible to show that there are Gospel passages that make the most sense when read as Jesus' rabbinic response to the sectarianism found in Qumran texts.)

Rabbinic lit. is extremely helpful in figuring out the precise meaning of Jesus' words. I have already given some important examples in my post on 7/1 and some trivial examples on 6/27. I won't repeat them here. What I will say is that it is a fact that the overwhelming majority of scholars ignore rabbinic lit. and the rest underutilize it.

Work says that rabbinic lit. is also a top-down approach. Not so. He claims that rabbinic Judaism underwent important changes after the 1st century. I disagree. In the first place, many of the elements of rabbinic Judaism were already in place in the 1st century. A number of scholars have made this point. In fact, the New Testament itself provides a lot of evidence for rabbinic ideas in the 1st century.

In the second place, let us assume I am wrong about this. Let us assume rabbinic Judaism really did radically develop in new ways after the destruction of the Temple. My point about the usefulness of rabbinic lit. for Jesus' life would still hold up. Because rabbinic lit. is much more than a record of the beliefs of rabbinic Judaism. It is also a collection of folk wisdom, folk sayings, folk culture, stories, parables, riddles -- some of which go back centuries before rabbinic lit. was compiled. It is a far richer source for these things than Qumran. Qumran doesn't even come close. Scholars love Qumran documents because their discovery is relatively new. Rabbinic lit. has been around for centuries and scholars will have to explain why they ignored it -- this is not something they want to do.

Rabbinic lit. is also a valuable source of information about Pharisaic and rabbinic criticisms of how the priests ran the Temple. A number of scholars, Jewish and Christian, have noted that Jesus' action at the Temple (on the periphery of the Temple) against the moneychangers and vendors has a strong historical context: Paula Fredriksen, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, Robert Stein, and Craig Evans (see his article in "Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls", ed. by James H. Charlesworth; for the others, see my Bibliography). There are probably more. But most of them do not give any examples from rabbinic lit.

Fredriksen ("King", p. 107) says that Jesus' action is "fairly mild" compared to that of other Jewish figures (she is right), but she gives no examples; neither does Meier (MJ 1.349) who makes a similar point. So what is a reader to think of their comments? Without examples, they make no real impression. Of the above scholars, Stein and Evans (both Christian, I believe) do the best job. Evans quotes from rabbinic lit. quite a lot. Stein gives one valuable rabbinic incident as a context and correctly infers that Jesus loved and supported the Temple, with his action against the merchants being a fairly trivial event (Stein, pp. 189-91). In my book, I give 17 examples of the historical context. (The idea of Borg, Crossan, Sanders and so many others that Jesus was fundamentally opposed to the Temple is pure fantasy.)

Besides the fact that Jesus obviously revered the Temple and wanted to maintain proper decorum there as other rabbis did, the implication of all this is that just as other Pharisees and rabbis, who criticized certain Temple practices even more than Jesus did, did not get into serious trouble with the authorities, so too Jesus never got into trouble for his criticism. It had nothing to do with his execution (which, in any case, was a Roman affair all the way). There is even more evidence for this conclusion which I will not go into here.

Work also says he appreciates my "efforts to root out anti-Jewish biases in both traditional Christian faith and scholarly historiography." For me, anti-Jewishness is not just an isolated element alongside otherwise good scholarship. It is an infection that permeates the whole field. It's not just another thing. It has affected the entire field. Sometimes I think that the whole scholarly structure has to be thrown out and started again from the bottom up.

Never forget that historical criticism of the Gospels really got under way in 19th century Europe, when fear and hatred of Jews was extremely intense. Most of the scholars engaged in this study were affected by that. It put a stamp on the whole field. (See my essay SCHWEITZER AND RENAN on my Web site.) Yet hardly anyone studies this (Susannah Heschel's book on Abraham Geiger is one exception). In a field like anthropology, scholars will acknowledge the prejudices and racism of previous scholars and how this affected their work. But the same problem here is generally treated with silence and some of these older scholars are still revered.

I am fighting for justice for Jews, for the Gospel writers (stop doing violence to their words), and for the historical, Jewish Jesus and his followers, especially Judas who has been wrongly accused of betrayal for far too long (not accused in Mark, but in subsequent tradition). With a rare exception like William Klassen on Judas, I do not know anyone else who does this. (See my posts for 6/24 and 6/25.) The historical Jesus does not threaten Christianity and I think many Christians know this. But you get a different impression from scholars who seem to feel very threatened by him because they do their best to obscure the issues and follow improper standards and methods. Build from a good foundation and the fear dissipates.

Saturday, July 05, 2003

(A reminder: There's a table of contents at 7/2 for all the preceding stuff.)

Until Mel Gibson's film "The Passion", which apparently will dwell on Jesus' last 12 hours, is released, it is not really possible to discuss it in any detail, but Gibson has already managed to raise some issues that can be discussed.

Like others, I have always doubted his intention (or his power, since it may not be in his control) to make a film in Aramaic and Latin with no subtitles. Confirmation of this doubt comes from the June 2003 "Bible Review" (pp. 10-11). William Fulco, the scholar and archaeologist whom Gibson tapped to translate his English script into the ancient languages, has indicated that the theatrical release will most likely have subtitles (p. 11, col. 1).

Depending on what exactly that "last 12 hours" means, I believe it is fairly certain that one scene will be in Gibson's film: Jewish leaders putting Jesus on trial. (Or is it possible that, by "the last 12 hours", Gibson means to avoid the Jewish trial scene altogether?) If he is including the night in Gethsemane, then the "trial" scene must be in too. I put it in quotes because it never happened, nor was there any kind of hostile Jewish procedure against Jesus. What was really going on was a whole lot more brotherly than that. I discuss this in excruciating detail in my unpublished "The Ghost in the Gospels". As I often say, I have a compelling case that deserves a public hearing. An abundance of evidence from the Gospels alone supports my contention. What I do not know about Gibson's version is whether he will depict a very hostile proceeding or a more orderly one. That's up in the air.

The usual defense to the traditional version of Jesus' death is that this is our belief, this is what the Gospels say (according to a very careless reading of them, I would point out) and we do not accept any historical analysis that claims to go behind the text. For reasons I will explain below, Gibson cannot avail himself of this defense.

Gibson professes to be an extremely traditional (even conservative?) Catholic who would like to roll the Catholic clock back before the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II. He beiieves in the Church pre-Pope John XXIII. (His father is reported to believe that Vatican II was a Jewish plot. Does Mel believe this too?) Yet Mel Gibson has chosen to film the Gospel story in Aramaic. I think any Pope or Vatican Council before Vatican II would be aghast at this choice (except perhaps for the first couple of Popes).

(Certainly, Peter, who is traditionally Pope Numero Uno, would have enjoyed a film in his native Aramaic. But calling Peter a Pope has always seemed a little ridiculous to me. He was so Jewish. It's like imagining Jackie Mason as the Pope. Elaine Pagels correctly points out in "The Gnostic Gospels" that it has more to do with seizing power than historical reality, since the Church has always wanted to base its claim to power on those who experienced Jesus' resurrection.)

From the 4th century on (and probably even from the mid-2nd century), when most of the creeds and doctrines Gibson believes in were formulated, no Church leader would have countenanced an Aramaic Gospel. They would have called it Judaizing and branded Gibson a Judaizer.

The official Bible of the Catholic Church today is still Jerome's Latin Vulgate, though with several revisions in the last few decades, it is now designated the Nova Vulgata. So a film entirely in Latin would be one correct Catholic choice.

The other possibility is Greek. The Catholic Church does not base its authority on the Greek Gospels, rather it claims that the Church created the Greek Gospels. While I and many others would argue that the Church did not really come into existence until many decades later, the Church sees all of Jesus' original followers as the early Church (before there was any New Testament) and out of this group came the Gospels. A film entirely in Greek would be another Catholic choice.

(Apparently, there will be no Greek in Gibson's film, which is historically very odd. Roman officials and soldiers speaking Latin to each other is one thing, but in communicating with the Jewish population, they very likely used Greek, which was the English of its day, spoken everywhere. "Bible Review" has made this point too.)

So why has Gibson chosen to go against mainstream Catholic tradition and use Aramaic? Probably because he knows that Aramaic is the historical reality of 1st century Judea and he doesn't want to appear like a fool showing Jesus and his students conversing in Greek or Latin. He wants some historical believability for his film so that he will be taken seriously.

Several years ago, on the "Tonight Show" , President Jimmy Carter told the story of 1920s Texas Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson who opposed bilingual (Spanish) education in the public schools. She held up a Bible (at a press conference?) and announced, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for Texans!" (Carter also mentions this in "Living Faith", p. 222.) It got a big laugh from the "Tonight Show" audience. Gibson doesn't want to be laughed at like that.

(Does anyone know what Mel Gibson's father thinks of this project? If, as reported, he does not believe that the Holocaust happened, then he may not believe that Aramaic ever existed. Maybe he stands with Ma Ferguson.)

There are writers and artists who create works that are entirely worlds unto themselves. As such, you cannot criticize them from an external point of view. A lot of critics make the mistake of faulting an artist for something missing in a work, even though it was never part of the intention or design of the artist.

In the case of Gibson's "The Passion", however, he has adopted, at least in part, the premise of historical accuracy. So if there are any inaccuracies in his film -- such as a Jewish trial -- he has opened himself to the criticism of failure to be historically accurate. He cannot fall back on the position that this is what his tradition (a world unto itself) tells him and, therefore, he has a right to it. His tradition does not tell him the Gospels should be told in Aramaic. That is going behind the texts, which the Catholic Church (pre- and post-Vatican II) would be dubious about. I, for one, will feel justified, if his film warrants it, in criticizing Gibson for failing to be faithful to the true, highly pro-Jewish story that the Gospels themselves have preserved, even though nobody wants to see it.

I do not hate Gibson for making a possibly dangerous film which will unfairly and inaccurately blame Jews for Jesus' death. (I will reserve judgment about the danger until I see the film.) I do know some fellow Jews who say they will never watch a Mel Gibson movie again and even turn the channel now if they accidentally come on one of his films. I do not feel this way. I love the guy for having made "Man Without A Face". That is a great movie, and if you think I am exaggerating, I can only say that your reaction is a sign of how underrated that movie is.

There are certain films (very few) which, everytime you see them again, they grow deeper, more interesting, more touching, more wondrous. That's how it is with me when I see "Man Without A Face". It moves me even more with each viewing. It has this wonderful tenderness and humanity about it, not to mention its extraordinary intelligence. It's a thrill to watch it. If I was lucky enough to have made a film and that was the only film I ever got to make, I would be very proud indeed. So I will always love Gibson for that movie.

Gibson is, to me, a fellow actor, a fellow artist, and that gives me a kind of family connection to him. But I will criticize him, if necessary, for making a film unfaithful to the history in the Gospels. Too bad I never got the opportunity to meet Gibson before he embarked on this film. It's never too late to make another one, though.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

(A reminder: There's a table of contents at 7/2 for all the preceding stuff.)


The simple answer to that question is, Yes, if you want there to be a conflict; No, if you don't want it. And while I have more to say on this, sometimes it never gets any better than the simplest answer. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Ernest Renan, John Crossan, and Angela McCourt will help me demonstrate why.

Fear of what becoming too Jewish can do to Jesus for Christians is expressed a number of different ways. Many Christians do not mind acknowledging some Jewishness in him as long as it doesn't define him completely. There always has to be something more in him than just being Jewish or else he loses ... what? His mystery? His uniqueness? His divinity?

I mention mystery because I once heard Garry Wills put it this way. He seemed to be afraid that too much knowledge about Jesus as a Jew would destroy his mystery, but he didn't speak at length on this, so I am not a hundred percent sure that this is what he meant. But for many, the fear seems to be that Jesus will become too ordinary if he is ever fully explained as a Jew. What will be left of his spirit and his special "magic" if he turns out to be like other rabbis?

In the first place, who's to say that rabbis are without mystery. Why so often is there this assumption that Jesus being completely Jewish could only mean something less? Why is Jewish less? Why is rabbi less? Well, I might be told, maybe rabbis have something special too, but Jesus is different. But he's human, isn't he?, I would respond. He has to be some kind of human being. Why not Jewish?

Most Christians have no trouble with the paradox (if it is a paradox) that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. But make him a fully human Jew and all of a sudden there is a problem. Why? Could it be hatred and fear of Jews? There's no hatred and fear of humans generally, so Jesus can be fully human. But fully Jewish seems to be a big problem ... bigger than it has any right to be.

If Jesus' humanity does not interfere with his divinity or his mystery or his uniqueness, there is no reason why his Jewishness should interfere with any of these things -- unless you have a secret fear and hatred of things Jewish. Imagine if any Christians hated human beings the way some hate Jews. Those Christians would find any talk of Jesus' human nature as threatening as his Jewishness. If that seems silly or outrageous to you, then you ought to find fear of Jesus the Jew just as outrageously wrong.

I have never seen the fear of the historical, Jewish Jesus expressed more bluntly and radically than by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a fine writer and courageous thinker who was once called the Christian Martin Buber. He devoted much of his work to rethinking all the developments of western, Christian civilization. But rethinking the very origins of Christianity and the historical Jesus was not something Rosenstock-Huessy cared for.

For him, the historical Jesus must be utterly banished. Not only dismissed from our time, but written out of history so that it will be impossible to know him. He goes so far as to incorporate this running from the historical Jesus into Jesus himself who becomes the Christ so that his historical self can be totally obliterated from history:

"... nothing of the man Jesus was allowed to enter the new order of his seond body, the Church. People who speak of his sacrifice often do not understand this ... His own life was used up in the housecleaning. He volunteered to have his own flesh belong to the old eon" ("The Fruit of Lips", p. 118). Rosenstock-Huessy will assert, "We shall never know an 'historical' Jesus 'behind' so-called 'material'" (p. 11). "The lips of the living Jesus, wonderful as his words must have been, cannot be listened to by us" (p. 9). I could not disagree more.

Rosenstock-Huessy's point is that it is now impossible to remember a historical, Jewish Jesus. He wants it to be impossible. He invents ideas to make it impossible. There would be no rethinking of history here. His fear overwhelmed his more usual courage.

A hundred years earlier, Ernest Renan could see more of the historical Jesus -- more of his Jewish origin and development -- but it was vital to him that Jesus ends up "no longer a Jew" ("The Life of Jesus", Modern Library, p. 225). There has to be a rupture between Jesus and Judaism or else Christianity cannot fulfill its destiny to remove itself from Judaism: "Far from Jesus having continued Judaism, he represents the rupture with the Jewish spirit ... The general march of Christianity has been to remove itself more and more from Judaism" (p. 391). Renan's fear is pretty much out there and obvious to behold. He is revolted by Judaism. (For more on Renan, see SCHWEITZER AND RENAN, on my Web site.)

Our contemporary scholars have not changed their ideas or emotions about this, but after the Holocaust, they cannot be so blunt. They suppress direct expression of their emotions and have to be more subtle. I will only consider John Crossan here.

Crossan believes that Christian worship of Jesus began in his lifetime (it is the equivalent of Renan's statement that Jesus in his life ends up "no longer a Jew"): "Christian faith itself was there beforehand among Jesus' first followers in Lower Galilee, and it continued ... after his execution" ("Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography", p. 161). (Renan too emphasized the importance of Galilee in Jesus' life over Judea, the home of Judaism proper.)

To really drive home the point, Crossan dramatically asserts that there were only three possible attitudes towards Jesus during his life. He repeats it several times in his writings. Here's one: "Clearly, some people ignored him, some worshiped him, and others crucified him" (ibid., p. xi; cf. pp. 199-200). So if you don't worship Jesus (which makes you Christian), then the only other choices are ignoring him or being hostile to him. But where are all the Jews who didn't worship Jesus and yet liked him or disputed with him in friendly fashion?

Such Jews appear often enough in the Gospels. For example, Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner (Luke 7:36, 11:37, 14:1), which they wouldn't do for just anyone. and they warn him about Herod (Luke 13:31). Also, see Mark 12:28-34 and John 3:1-15 for a couple more positive encounters. Crossan makes these Gospel passages and these Jews just vanish.

(By the way, the fact that Jesus and Pharisees will argue and question each other and agree and disagree does not mean there was rancor between them. Pharisees argued and disagreed with each other all the time. Jesus' arguments make him a part of the whole Pharisaic mindset, not apart from it. Even a dispute about handwashing, which was not accepted practice among all Pharisees, is just another internal Pharisaic debate. It is not a diatribe against Pharisees. You could insert it in the Talmud without missing a beat. I believe a majority of Christians still have a hard time understanding this.)

Crossan has eliminated thousands of Jews from history. He cannot see Jesus in a friendly world of Jews (anymore than Renan could). At best, Jews as Jews ignore Jesus. Otherwise, they are lethally hostile to him. They are never just good company without the worship.

In Crossan's scheme, where are all the Jews who engaged, agreeing and disagreeing, with Jesus in a collegial give-and-take, who loved him as a rabbi without worshiping him? Why is erasing Jews from history considered good scholarship? I would not wish to erase what he meant to his closest followers before and after he died. So why do some Christian views demand the elimination of a part of Jewish history?

You cannot tell me that there isn't a tremendous fear that if we remember Jesus was Joshua, a Jew at home among Jews, then the whole edifice of Christ-ianity will come tumbling down. Erasing people from history is a sign of some kind of fear and it does not make for good scholarship. The fear itself is unrealistic and creates the very thing it is afraid of.

Ah, but then there is Angela McCourt. She could remember something that would make most scholars shudder. In "Angela's Ashes", Frank McCourt recounts the agony of his mother as she tried to put together a good Christmas dinner for the family. Living on welfare in Ireland, they were not entitled to "fancy items" from the butcher's. Beggars can't be choosers, they really should accept whatever the butcher can spare, but a pig's head for Christmas? (For some reason, I can't do paragraph indentations on this blogspot, so I am using dashes in the following quote, but these dashes are not in Frank McCourt's text; this is from p. 97.)

"-- -- Mam says the pig's head isn't right for Christmas and he says 'tis more than the Holy Family had in that cold stable in Bethlehem long ago. You wouldn't find them complaining if someone offered them a nice fat pig's head.
-- -- No, they wouldn't complain, says Mam, but they'd never eat the pig's head. They were Jewish.
-- -- And what does that have to do with it? A pig's head is a pig's head.
-- -- And a Jew is a Jew and 'tis against their religion and I don't blame them.
-- -- The butcher says, Are you a bit of an expert, missus, on the Jews and the pig.
-- -- I am not, says Mam, but there was a Jewish woman, Mrs. Leibowitz, in New York [where they lived before], and I don't know what we would have done without her."

Mrs. McCourt was perhaps not a scholar, but that was only because as hard as life was on her, it had never brought her that low. She didn't live in a rarefied world of concepts divorced from reality. She had human contact with Jews -- without philosophy, without profound debate, without scriptural scrutiny -- just exchange of food, soup, sighs, a little neighborly help. Jesus and his whole family could be kosher, there could be secret scrolls discovered in desert caves confirming this, and it wouldn't upset her. It would deeply shock scholars, but it wouldn't ruffle her Irish feathers in the slightest. Knowledge of Jesus' Jewishness doesn't threaten her. Why? Why doesn't it threaten? Because I suspect that Angela McCourt knew something scholars miss.

There are two kinds of mystery: Cheap mysteries and profound mysteries. The cheap kind depends on keeping things hidden. The profound kind remains a mystery even after you know everything that can legitimately be explained. I suppose you have to trust that Jesus, with all that makes him Jewish, is deep enough that he will always have another level. Jesus doesn't need to keep any of his Jewishness hidden. He wasn't ashamed of any of it. So go ahead and explain what is so Jewish about Jesus and you can always find more in him if you want.

You can pursue knowledge of his Jewish nature for all it can give you and it won't threaten his mystery at all. Jesus can be fully Jewish and fully inspirational to Christians. That is no more an impossible paradox than his being fully human and fully divine.

Angela McCourt didn't need conflict between Jesus' Jewishness and the mystery of Christ, so there wasn't any for her. She didn't need cheap mysteries. Everything about a Jewish Jesus could be known and there was still glory in Christ for her. She simply needed soup from Mrs. Leibowitz and that made all the difference.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003


At the beginning of each month, and perhaps in the middle of the month, I will provide a table of contents for what I discussed in previous blogs.

6/24 -- Judas (including W. Klassen and K. Paffenroth on Judas).

6/25 -- My encounter with Paffenroth.

6/26 -- An encounter with E. Pagels; universal Jesus; rabbinic lit.; a brief look at Thomas 70.

6/27 -- figs, spit, and strong wine; rabbinic lit. and the Gospels; P. Culbertson; J. Crossan on virgin birth and wild dogs.

6/28 -- fear of Jesus' Jewishness; brief reference to Pagels; girl on a train; on the names Jesus/Joshua and James/Jacob; K. Stendahl; Church history and Jews; the ancient Judaizers.

7/1 -- rabbinic lit. and Gospels again; Matthew 5:21-24 on murder and anger; new wine/old wineskins; last, first; you have heard/ but I say.

I think it's been an interesting round of stuff. Perhaps in the days ahead, I will get a little more personal about what it is like to pursue the historical Jesus when everyone is still so afraid of historical discoveries. It is frustrating to say the least. There is more loose talk about the historical Jesus than genuine interest in him. Sometimes I think it will drive me crazy or to despair.

A lot of this talk (including scholarly work) seems aimed at making sure that he will remain covered up. He's not that hard to find. He's right there in the Gospels with a little help from the historical context provided by Josephus and rabbinic lit. Sniffing out all the fears that block us from seeing the truth is a lot harder than actually discovering the historical truths about Jesus.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003


(Some specific discussion of elements in Matthew 5 is included here.)

The overall reason for studying rabbinic literature in conjunction with the Gospels is the same as with any other historical subject: You want to understand someone in his or her cultural/historical context. Rabbinic lit. is the cultural context of Rabbi Jesus/Joshua. It is the closest and best source we have for the Jewish customs, ideas, and especially storytelling that would have been popular in the 1st century.

Pharisaic/rabbinic tradition was an oral culture. The written products of later rabbinic practice collected these long developing traditions. What is recorded in rabbinic lit. did not happen overnight or spontaneously appear in the year 200 CE. Much of it was in development for centuries. Some of it would be older than the 1st century, some goes back to this time, and some came later. All of it is useful for understanding how the Pharisaic/rabbinic culture -- which is Jesus' culture -- thinks about the world, the human condition, and moral values.

Many Christians are afraid that Jesus will become less unique or that he will become mundane and uninteresting. None of that is true. He will be as sublime as ever, perhaps more so, if that is possible. Some Christians may be afraid that Jesus will somehow radically change. That is not true either-- with the exception that the anti-Jewish interpretation of his teachings can be shown to be utterly wrong. (I will explain this last point a little further below.)

Most of what Jesus teaches won't change very much for Christians. Some of it may become a little deeper or more nuanced or more specific or gain additional shading or color, but your ideas about his moral teachings will not be turned topsy-turvy. They will just make you go, "Ahhh. I see. A fresh angle." Here is one example.

At Matthew 5:21-24, Jesus says that not only is murder a sin, but getting angry with or insulting your brother is just as serious a sin as murder. That is sound rabbinic teaching. Obeying lesser commandments (do not get angry) helps protect against the possibility of violating more important commandments (do not murder). But there is also a very specific, rabbinic reason why Jesus includes insults here as well.

The rabbis had such a horror of shedding blood that they equated causing the bood to drain from someone's face with murder. I suppose that when you insult or humiliate another person, it is also possible that their cheeks will redden with the rush of blood, but the rabbis thought of a person going pale as a vivid reminder of another kind of bloodshed.

To quote from the Talmud, Baba Metzia 58b: R. Yochanan said on the authority of R. Simeon ben Yochai, "Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong." And an unnamed source said to R. Nachman ben Isaac, "He who publicly makes pale his neighbor is as though he shed blood." The same passage continues: "Abaye asked R. Dimi, 'What do people [most] carefully avoid in the West [i.e., Palestine]?' He replied, 'Putting others to shame.' ... All who descend into Gehenna [hell] [will subsequently] reascend, excepting three, who descend but do not reascend, viz., He who commits adultery with a married woman, publicly shames his neighbor, or fastens an evil epithet [nickname, e.g., "Fool!"] upon his neighbor." By the way, in the Greek Gospel at Matthew 5:22, "Gehenna" is the word that is used where Jesus says that, for calling your brother "You fool!", you are subject to the hell (Gehenna) of fire. So you can see that the parallel to the Talmud is quite close in almost all the particulars.

The rabbis also taught that sometimes all the gates to heaven are closed, including the gate of prayer, but one gate is always opened: The gate of wounded feelings [or the gate of wrongs, i.e., wronged feelings, or the gate of tears] (Baba Metzia 59a, 59b). God will always listen to someone who has been hurt, insulted, put down. That is where Jesus is coming from when he says at the beginning of Matthew 5 that the meek and the persecuted are blessed. Anyone whose heart is broken, God will listen to. That is the teaching of Jesus' Pharisaic/rabbinic culture in which he was raised.

Does this make him less unique or less sublime? I don't think so. I think it helps make a lot clearer the world of thought and images that Jesus breathes in.

Just as you would study the culture of Apache Indians to understand Geronimo or the Nez Perce to understand Chief Joseph (even if our best source material came from a later time), for the same exact reason you want to understand Jesus' culture. Rabbinic lit. and the Gospels complement and enrich each other.

But there is an even more specific reason why Jesus' words should be studied in the context of rabbinic lit. A few of his sayings were given a very false and anti-Jewish spin. They have been dreadfully misinterpreted to this very day. I will list three of the more important ones. I have written extended essays on all three, but I will speak here at some length only on the third. All three have contributed to the very wrong idea that Jesus saw himself as a completely new person overthrowing a stale Judaism. That is incredible nonsense. Here are the three examples:

1) "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins ..." (Mark 2:22).

2) "The last will be first and the first last" (Matt 20:16).

3) "You have heard ... but I say ..." (a series of sayings beginning at Matt 5:21).

Traditionally, new wine was interpreted as Jesus' new Christian teachings and old wineskins as Judaism which was now regarded as old, useless, superseded. Today, most scholars are reluctant to interpret it in such a blatantly anti-Jewish way, but they think it has something to do with Jesus' new teachings overturning some older teachings. That is still wrong. It is really a saying about fasting and has nothing to do with new and old teachings, but I won't say more about it here.

The saying on the last and the first was also traditionally interpreted to mean that Christians (the last or latecomers) were displacing the Jews (the first). Again, sheer nonsense. Today, scholars tend to interpret the first as the self-righteous and the last as the penitent sinners who have turned back to God or the lost and forgotten people. At least, this is half right. It is about penitent sinners, but the first are not the self-righteous.

Scholars think that, in the last/first saying, Jesus is turning the world upside down or introducing a new order. Jesus was never instituting a new order. That is a fascist idea. Jesus' teachings are not about order, new or old. It is indeed a saying about God's generosity, as some scholars have understood -- God is generous to both the last and the first, not one over the other, as far too many scholars misunderstand it. I demonstrate this with rabbinic parallels in another unpublished essay.

I want to dwell for a moment on the series of You have have heard/But I say in Matthew 5. They have been used by theologians and so-called historical scholars to create serious damage to Jesus' true relationship to Judaism. Scholars still call them the antitheses which is an extremely biased nomenclature. (On how scholars use naming to distort this history, see my essay THEOLOGY IN HISTORY on my Web site -- click on Links, above.)

In reality, this was a Pharisaic/rabbinic manner of speaking, though there were many variations. Rabbis frequently used the verb "to hear" to introduce the superficial reading of a biblical text (e.g., "We have heard ... but" or "I might understand ... but" or "I might hear this as it is heard ... but"; Jesus' expression is another variation on these). Then they would introduce the deeper meaning, usually with "But", but other variations included "And I say" or simply "I say". Pharisaic/rabbinic tradition encouraged the development of quite strong, individual personalities. Hillel, a generation before Jesus, once said, "If I am here, all is here; if I am not here, what is here?" (Sukkah 53a). (It almost sounds like something from the Gospel of John, doesn't it?) Jesus was a part of this strong culture.

The Sadduceean class, from whom most of the chief priests came, hated this about the Pharisees and rabbis. Though the priests ran the Temple on a daily basis, the Pharisees and rabbis spoke with authority about Torah. They had established themselves as the principle interpreters of Torah even on matters relating to the Temple. It must have driven Sadducees and priests crazy. By the 1st century, they had lost the battle to be the authoritative exponents of Torah. And there was nothing they could do about it. They had no power to persecute Pharisees and rabbis. They never hounded Jesus either.

The rabbinic interpretation of Psalm 62:11 -- "Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this" -- was that there is more than one meaning in Torah: Surface meaning and multiple, deeper meanings. Rabbis and Pharisees excelled at pulling more meanings out of Torah (something that Sadducees were opposed to) because, for them, God was still alive and never stops speaking. The multiple meanings, or oral Torah, are God continuing to speak to Jews.

That is what Jesus is doing in Matthew 5. He is engaged in oral Torah. All his parables are oral Torah too. "Elucidation" would be a far better name for "You have heard ... But I say". "Antithesis" is preposterously wrong. No Jew of Jesus' time heard him as attacking or overturning Jewish teachings. They heard him doing what rabbis always did: Using his personal authority to introduce the deeper meaning of Torah. I have no doubt that Matthew heard him this way also. He must have known very well that this is how Pharisees and rabbis talked.

Sadly, everyone keeps missing this. When you realize how Jewish Jesus was to the Jews of his time, you know that the story of Jewish mistreatment of Jesus makes no sense whatsoever. I hope Christians will gradually learn to let go of this part of the traditional story. It is historically false and completely unnecessary for Christianity to maintain it.

I do not offer Jesus' Jewish context and his amicable relations with other Jews as proof that Jewish leaders did not conspire in his death (though I do prove this beyond all reasonable doubt in my unpublished "The Ghost in the Gospels"). My purpose here is to establish a necessary condition for understanding the true story of how he died. You have to lose an old, perniciously wrong worldview and gain a new worldview. Talk about new wine and old wineskins all you want. Jesus' Jewishness is a real test of how ready anyone is to see with new eyes.

Right now, absolutely every single scholar who writes about the death of Jesus approaches it from the viewpoint that Jesus offended many Jews and was in conflict with them. That is a completely wrong assumption. It is only when you unlearn this deep prejudice that you can finally read the Gospels for what they actually say about the death of Jesus and not what everyone fantasizes they say.

To become a true historian, you have to become a true fundamentalist about the historical texts of the Gospels instead of a false fundamentalist who promotes fundamentalism about theology. There is real history in the Gospels -- you only have to gain a whole new worldview to see it.

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